• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

Not Fade Away 2006: Back to Black, Amy Winehouse

"Somebody said to me recently that listening to my music makes them think, 'This is what it's like to be young and living in London in 2006. I'm so f****** proud that it's achieved that. When I listen to the Shangri-Las, it's 1964 and I'm young in America. When I listen to the Specials, it's 1980 and I'm young in London. That's all I've ever wanted to do." - Amy Winehouse, 2006.

Jesus, Amy. How could you?

It's hard now to listen to Amy Winehouse's Back in Black album and not feel angry. To feel something has been stolen from us. To remember how fine and fresh that album sounded without feeling the stain of what was to follow blackening your memory. To blame its creator for, well, what exactly? For being sick? For not being strong enough? For dying on us?

Possibly. It was difficult to watch Winehouse's decline in the years before her death, as played out in tabloid headlines and "shock" photographs, and not invoke the words of Wendy O'Connor, Kurt Cobain's mother, when he killed himself: "Now he's gone and joined the Stupid Club."

But in the end the narratives of our lives are mystery stories to everyone else and even if the plot seems familiar we are all in the end unknowable. Is it fair to judge?

The question then is can we divorce the art from the story of the artist. In Winehouse's case, that is particularly difficult. Even when Back to Black came out the Winehouse legend was already in play.

As the journalist Caroline O'Sullivan suggested in her 2011 obituary of Winehouse: "A great imponderable was whether Back to Black would have connected so strongly with listeners if Winehouse had not simultaneously been playing out her emotional dramas in public."

Back to Black is a break-up album couched in the music of sixties girl groups. At the time it was the latter that appealed to me. It's Winehouse's account of the end of her relationship with Blake Fielder-Civil, a relationship that would be rekindled subsequently. It's dark and funny and bitter and on the title track (only one of a number of stand-out songs on the album) bruised and knowing.

Winehouse wasn't the only one tapping into the spirit of the girl groups that year. Brighton indie group The Pipettes, who made some minor polka dot waves, were also drawing from the same well. Listen to their single Your Kisses Are Wasted On Me and what you hear is ramshackle charm, girlish playfulness and almost edible harmonies. But put right next to Winehouse it sounds gauche.

Part of that is down to craft of course. And that's as important - though at times we play it down - as the fact that Winehouse was tapping darker currents than three young women high on life. Listen to the way Back to Black is layered, how instruments are adroitly built up and then drop out (a process overseen by the producer Mark Ronson, whose reputation would be sealed by the success of the record). This is a recording that's been thought through on a sonic level.

Of course in retrospect the success of that craft led to every other hit in the last few years adopting a similar retro approach. Sometimes that's worked (Adele and Rumer have both had their moments), sometimes not so much (if I never hear Duffy's Mercy again it will be too soon). As a result these days it can sound overly familiar. But in 2006 it felt new enough.

Most of that year, if I'm honest, I was listening to dubstep. My go-to sounds were Burial's debut album, and The World is Gone, the first album by Various, who mixed up electronica and nu folk. Burial's album in particular sounded like the ghost of old jungle and garage tracks, urban, minimalist, compelling. The most interesting British music was being made that year in the margins.

But that left the mainstream wide open in 2006. And apart from the ongoing usurpation of the charts by Timbaland (who in 2006 was busy reinventing Nelly Furtado) and Gnarls Barkley's Crazy (originally released the year before), Amy Winehouse was the only game in town. Her success was one of those moments when craft and commerce just fitted.

And so in 2006 Amy Winehouse was everywhere. Would that were still the case.

Other Contenders

You Hurt Me, Burial

Standing In The Way Of Control, The Gossip

Promiscuous, Nelly Furtado

Maneater, Nelly Furtado

I Was a Lover, TV On the Radio

Lloyd, I'm Ready to Be Heartbroken, Camera Obscura

Falling Slowly, The Swell Season

London Bridge, Fergie

The Worst Taste in Music, The Radio Dept

Love is a Losing Game, Amy Winehouse

Tears Dry On Their Own, Amy Winehouse

A Lady of a Certain Age, Divine Comedy

The Boom Boom Bap, Scritti Politti

Your Kisses Are Wasted on Me, The Pipettes

Take Me Back to Your House, Basement Jaxx

Circle of Sorrow, Various

NME Single of the Year: Over and Over, Hot Chip

Festive 50 Winner: I'm Your Boyfriend Now, Tall Pony

And the best-selling Single of the Year: Crazy, Gnarls Barkley

Contextual targeting label: 
Arts and Entertainment

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.

231338